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March 30, 2010

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Sam Harris: Science Must Destroy Religion…And Hitler…And Mothra

March 24, 2010

The claim via Sam Harris: Science must destroy religion. Science and religion are completely incompatible.

Evidence to the contrary:

1. People who produced science while praticing religion. Some examples:

Isaac Newton (more prolific on theology than on science); Galileo Galilee (faithful Catholic, even under temporary house arrest); Max Planck, father of quantum physics, born and died a Christian; Monsignor Georges Lemaitre, Head of Pontifical Academy of Sciences, responsible for the Big Bang theory–and many, many more.

It should also be pointed out that professional atheists like Harris and Dawkins tend to be better-known for their proselytism than for the novelty of their research. One might conjecture that, if science can be said to suffer beneath the weight of other ideologies, then this effect is spread equally among them.

2. The presence of great scientists who opposed radical atheism, including some of those lionized by contemporary atheists:

In addition to those who managed to produce science without ‘destroying’ their religious faith, there have been a few who remained agnostic, yet opposed to the politicized atheism of the hysterical, Harris variety. I submit:

Albert Einstein

Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is the same as that of the religious fanatics, and it springs from the same source . . . They are creatures who can’t hear the music of the spheres. (The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 2000 p. 214)

Charles Darwin

From the January 21, 2010 Fresh Air interview with Randal Keynes, Charles Darwin’s great-great grandson and his biographer:

“Darwin thought long and hard about who, what God might be, what his purposes might be, what his plans for humans and all of that might be…We know that from some comments he made right at the end of his life, where he was clearly still worrying about these questions. He just couldn’t decide. He couldn’t see anything clear in one area or another that helped him to form a picture.”

Darwin’s thoughts on using the theory of evolution to support atheism:

“Some people who wanted to reject the Bible argued that it [the theory of evolution] was [a rejection of religion] and took it as a text for atheism. Darwin was very unhappy for the argument to be used in that way. He wouldn’t associate himself with attacks like that, uses like that of his argument. It was very important to him that many Christians felt that there was no contradiction between readings of his theory and the revelation, the faith that was so important to them. Very soon after the first edition of “The Origin of Species” appeared, a prominent Christian commentator wrote to him saying he welcomed Darwin’s theory, there was a great deal of interest in it, and he saw no direct contradiction between his theory and the teachings of Christianity.

So, what Darwin was saying, was that evolution was not contradictory to Christianity and didn’t like it used as an argument for atheism. But then, what did he know?

3. The importance of knowledge dissemination to science; the importance of religion to knowledge dissemination.

Even ignoring the notable scientists whose work did not prove incompatible with faith, there remains the fact that this opposition, claimed by Harris, ignores the crucial role played by knowledge organization and distribution to the success of science. Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and Berkeley professor, Timothy Ferris, in the Q&A portion of this interview made two observations related to this relationship which undermine the proposition that ‘science’ would do well to destroy ‘religion.’

First, he insisted that real science was only carried out collaboratively, under the watchful eyes of community and academic review. As opposed to a hindrance, one might point to the key role played by religion, historically, in fostering educational institutions—from establishing the first public hospitals in Europe; to founding basically every Ivy League university in the US; to maintaining networks of charitable schools and orphanages worldwide—all of which have and continue to enable collective learning and the dissemination of knowledge. It might further be pointed out that the Catholic church, likely the biggest of these educational networks, has been teaching science generally, and Darwinian evolution in particular, for generations.

When Ferris was asked directly if religion impedes science (ie whether he think science should “destroy” “religion”), he observed that:

The United States is an unusually religious country. It’s also a world leader in science. I don’t have an answer.

If the impediment caused science by religion were so enormous, it would indeed follow that the most scientifically cutting edge countries would be any of those developed countries less religious than America—which would include basically all of them.


If we are to judge the validity of Sam Harris’ claim of an impenetrable antipathy between those with a religious faith and the producers of science—and in particular that science should destroy religion—then shouldn’t the evidence from which his claim proceeds live up to some objective criteria? Or do we not need science when making vast generalizations about societies, religions, and sciences? Are we merely to substitute faith in a deity for faith in Harris’ opinion about that faith?

Harris and the Ham Handedness of Radicals

The thing about ideologues is, you can always pick them out by the clumsiness of their terms and how much of the complexity of reality they’ve had to shave away to reach their beliefs.

Science must destroy religion. Really? Because they are warring space robots? Do they have light-sabers or nun chucks?

Or: The West is at war with Islam. Shouldn’t someone warn the Muslim communities in the West? And, more importantly, are my Muslim friends secretly planning to drop cluster bombs on me?

This intellectual dumbing down with big, clumsy and ultimately meaningless terminology stands out among the Harrises of the world just as it does among the Pat Robertsons. What makes Harris just a pitch more shrill is that he commits the same sins of reason for which he lambastes his opponents: namely, making wild and sexy claims that are unsupported by academic research and unbiased observation.

A Sampling of Harris’ Snake Oil Suppositions:

For starters, Harris believes that the ‘West’ is at war with ‘Islam’ and that ‘Islam’ is particularly predisposed to produce terrorism. To buy this, you must:

Not wonder which West and which Islam he means.

Ignore that 99.9999% of Muslims do not and will not commit acts of terrorism.

Ignore that Islam was around for 1,400 years before terrorist attacks began, AND that terrorism began with secular ideologies (suicide bombing originated with the Tamil Tigers, or even Kamikaze pilots. The Baader-Meinhof gang, Carlos the Jackal and their compatriots preceded Al Qaeda and were atheists. Does that mean communism or atheism predisposes to terrorism? According to Harrisian standards, it’s probably sufficient evidence.) 

Ignore that both secular and religious leaderships have committed violent atrocities against civilians on a much larger scale than have terrorists.

Ignore that “science” and technology were both instrumentalized by fascists in producing both the philosophies (eugenics) and machinery of warfare and genocide. Harris would no doubt claim that these were perversions of both science and technologies (and I would agree), but would he allow the same argument for radical interpretations of scriptures? Clearly not, and if you do not find that revealing, it may be because you share in his respective preferences and prejudices.

Harris’ driving philosophy seems not to be critical investigation, but rather: If it gets me on Bill Maher, I’ll say it. At least the religious fanatics are aware that theirs is an affair with faith.

Still feeling incredulous? Let me give you a few more Harrisian examples of what I mean.

1. Harris claims that Vatican policy on birth control has a significant impact on the AIDs crisis (or use of birth control, for that matter)—a statement he’s made which is unsupported scientifically and demonstrably false on investigation. Please refer to my earlier post on Hitchens for just how poorly this claim stands up to the slightest intrusion of facts.

2. Another of his beliefs belied by research: that it is religion at the heart of much modern conflict and warfare. The irony embedded in this assertion is that the great graveyard of the 20th century was brought to you not by bin Laden types, but rather by secular ideologues who instrumentalized technology and ‘science’ to the detriment of civilian populations. The DaDaists knew this. Harris, apparently, does not. These ideologues, like Harris, believed that some ideology had to destroy some other ideology in the name of progress. We know where that thinking got us.

In reality, if religion can be said to be involved in modern warfare at all, then it manifests just as frequently in moral opposition as it does in justification. Oftentimes, religious dogma is not meaningfully invoked at all, only conjectured into a role because one leader or another goes to church. Ask yourself: How is it even possible to prove belief as a causal factor? Is religion responsible for war, or is it just another facet of social milieus where wars occur? Does faith incite war, or is it merely along for the ride? Does Harris really imagine a counterfactual world where, sans religious ideology, warfare would decrease or disappear?  It is telling that, for Harris, these questions have such easy answers, because the truth, the real truth, is that they do not.

If one is serious about understanding the roots of violence in the contemporary nation states, I recommend “War of the World” by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson over the opinions of a fanatical neuroscientist. Ferguson, incidentally, notes that religious practice is not a good predictor of war-violence. So much for rational opining.

Cherry Picking

If this were a rational discussion, a fair treatment, factors like this would take the place of sexed up soundbites. But because it is an ideological rant masquerading as a stop on some intellectual footpath, only claims that suit the peculiar logic of the author are admitted into the hall. Those that complicate them are intentionally kept in the dark, along with his less-informed readers.

Interestingly, Harris, in order to evince what a detriment organized religion is to science, brings up stem cell research. Ignoring, of course, that stem cell research has proceeded fruitfully in spite of religio-moral reservations. He further neglects to note the details of this discussion. Namely, that religious opposition, at this point, mostly involves questions about genetically engineering so-called ‘super babies.’ One might point out that Aldous Huxley worried about (and Plato endorsed) breeding humans way before the mega-churches got involved—many would argue for good reason. Since I belong to a class and society wherein it is possible that my offspring will earn enough to purchase superior progeny, I feel obliged to remain agnostic. Suffice it to say that it is a worthy discussion.

I find that this particular issue is rather more useful against Harris’ proposition (that religion must be destroyed) than for it. After all, science itself did not raise these moral questions about its research technologies—why and how would it? As evolutionary biologist Satoshi Kanazawa put it in this debate, it is not the job of science to worry about outcomes of research; it’s only job is to produce information. There is no well-known, scientific body with widespread legitimacy, credibility or consistency charged with addressing the moral questions of research to the population generally. And are we truly ready to say the world would be improved by an absence of organized institutional moral inquiry? One which might wonder whether, say, experimenting on embryos was philosophically problematic or whether engineering superbabies might have unsavory implications for class and society, or even screw with nature itself? Is it not possible to be glad those questions are asked and pondered without even having to answer them? As much as it goes too far to insist on theocracy; how is it not apparent that insisting on the destruction of religion goes just as far?

Harris and his compatriots seem to imagine we’ll come up with some universal, humanist morality. So far this humanism has not caught on beyond a ‘progressive’ cadre of the sort which tend to be unpopular with the masses—in part due to their elitist ridicule of traditional faith. In their eagerness to sweep away the foundations of our contemporary civilization. The crusaders delude themselves by imagining that there is some sort of easily agreed upon, universal morality just beneath the skin of our collective humanity. Once again, there is ample evidence to the contrary, ranging from Greek pederastic practices, to Nietzsche’s conception of moral order, to the collapse of Biblical morality with the elevation of the state in fascist Germany; to the tolerance for infanticide in China under social engineering. The constructedness of morality has been well documented, from Bataille to Foucault. Even today, can moral norms really said to be the same from Riyadh to Bangkok to Beijing to Amsterdam? Heck, can they even be said to be the same from New York City to Wausau, Wisconsin? So then, how do we arrive at the confidence that we could do away with the structural underpinnings of our morality and keep the philosophical product intact? Is this like when we get rid of Saddam Hussein and democracy magically appears? Maybe Iran will step in and run our country too.

Revolutions are famous for eating their children, and little else that is consistent.

First They Came For Religion, Or ‘Other Stuff Science Must DESTROY (to be fair)’

Harris, in particular, creates a false dichotomy between what is “real” and what is “unreal.” He compares the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a fact, to the belief in Christ’s resurrection, a fiction. Indeed, perhaps the virgin birth is an invention; however, even where it is not intended symbolically, it communicates a distinct symbolism. This is not, however, taken under consideration. It is decontextualized and read as a random expression of lunacy. But let us leave the apparentness and utility of religious fact/symbols for now and consider other non-factual things which are nevertheless articles of belief upon which institutions have been built, among them: true love; an inherent value to life; and meaningful human equality.

According to Harris’ Reasoning, Science Should Also Destroy: romantic love; notions of human value, and the delusion of equality.

In the first case, the truth of love is not that it is a unique, nor even a special bond between two people. Rather it is a hormonal reaction meant to bolster the mating urge and to bond people temporarily in order to keep offspring alive. Or this is how it is understood impassively by science. Now add the fact that love results in demonstrable physical and psychological reactions, vaguely insane ones at that.  According to Harrisian logic, knowing this, surely we should cure people of their potentially harmful delusions about this state. People have killed over love, after all. It has destroyed families. Why not develop an anti-love pill and let people choose mates rationally, with no romantic delusions about what they are undergoing. We could also cure people of grief. After all, nothing loved, nothing grieved. If only folks understood their lives in terms of chemical reactions, matter and evolutionary drives and stopped dressing them up in romantic narratives, they would be utterly comprehensible. Scientists like Harris could tell us what our lives should ‘mean’ to us, ridding us of the work of deciding what we ‘believe’ for ourselves from among the multiplicity of religious and philosophical frameworks from which we currently choose. As the Germans say: Wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual—He who has the decision, has the torture.  Harris is the supreme humanitarian.

Similarly: an inherent value to life? From whence? After all, where there is naught but scientific explanation, we are naught more than momentary expressions of matter. Our very consciousnesses are illusory. What objective fact determines value anyway? Is value itself not an expression of one delusion about life or another—some invented ideology, framework or personal prejudice?  If Harris is fit to eliminate religious frame of reference, why does he not go after the other myths by which we organize and understand our lives (according to him) falsely? Given that he is the self-appointed arbiter of what is and is not ridiculous among beliefs, it is surprising that these delusions on par with institutional theism have not crossed his radar.

Then there is Equality, to which a scientist like Harris could only say: Give me a break! The science of psychology blessed us with both physical and IQ tests. These clearly demonstrate profound inequalities between people. And the well-pedigreed scientists behind the famous Bell Curve further asserted that this intelligence was not only deterministic of social success, but partly determined by race. Thus, not only were all men not created, it is even more certain that they were not created equally. Where is the outcry against this obvious fallacy?

What’s that you say? I am being overly simple, reductionist? Ignoring contrary views? Leaving out the good stuff to make a point? Yes. Exactly. It’s almost as if I were to reduce “science” to the invention of weapons, “scientists” to their morally indifferent designers, and then blame science, consequently, for warfare. But that would be obscenely reductionist, wouldn’t it? One might even say it would miss the point entirely. Thankfully, I am not Sam Harris


And, to beat a dead horse, this is what drives me a bit batty about the philosophers and natural scientists who come at organized religion with fangs bared: they give pride of place to how ‘ridiculous’ they find religious mythology, but little thought to the sundry consequences of the institutions they birth—the philosophies, symbologies, moral orders and art they inspired. All we hear about is The Crusades and Suicide Bombers. Really? The ones that happened like a thousand years ago and that .00000001% of a community? These  sad argument donkeys are getting tired of being trotted out and would never bear the evidentiary burden of their arguments under the weight of rational, peer-reviewed skepticism.

In conclusion, there are intellectual ways to examine organized religion, but the instruments are not so blunt as Harris’ intellectual flailing might suggest. If six years of studying Islam taught me one thing, it is that there is no such thing as “Islam,” writ large. History, sociology, political science, or even anthropology should and have had turns to speak. The things they have found have been diverse, troubling, encouraging and interesting, but never simple and extreme.

Yet these are not the tools employed by Harris or his colleagues. Sure, Harris and his kin cherry pick a fact here or there from all of these disciplines, but they do so without the impartiality, balance and sense of complexity these intellectual pursuits demand of their real practitioners. If  Harris and his kind are being at all ‘scientific’ then one can only conclude that their science is not incompatible with religion, but instead with social science, which does not endorse revolutions nor bear such irrational fruit. Harris’ version of science seems better suited to the bomb lobbing antics of the simple-minded camps of pro and contra. No wonder he’s made it onto Fox News.

Torch-Bearing Mob Takes Over The New York Times Comment Section

March 17, 2010

Quotes from the files of liberalism (small ‘l’); commentary in bold from me:

This is the dialogue that happens (in my head) whenever the New York Times attaches a comment section to one of its articles on Christianity.

  • “It’s just God’s will” = “I’m a stupid idiot” Given that ‘idiot’ is defined as a stupid person, one wonders if God willed you miss the SAT grammar problems on redundancy.
  • Do not underestimate the power of never having to take responsibility for your mistakes and their effects on your life and the lives of your friend s and family. That’s the power of God. Yes, this must be why Catholics and Jews are consistently caricatured in popular media as feeling overly guilty for their behavior. Can we make up our mind about this, please?
  • Believe in God is an explicit yearning for a perfect, yet distant, parental figure, one we can make up beliefs about at will. Huh, this is just bizarre. Most adolescents would say that the only perfect parental figure is a distant one; most parents would beg to differ. But if we’re making up beliefs at will, my perfect God would have paid for college and told me the pre-marital sex was a good thing.
  • Which raises an interesting question: suppose religious faith is nothing more than a neurochemical imbalance, which could be cured with appropriate medication? I thought religion was opium, so maybe you’d want ideological methadone. I recommend communism.
  • God is the grown-up version of Santa Claus. Where Santa Claus was a real life saint who was mythologized/ instrumentalized to teach children about the cause and effect of reward/punishment for good/bad behavior, and where God is a general notion, variously applied, for the creative force behind life and the natural world, I’m not sure that there are words for how weak this analogy is.
  • “God’s will” is how hypocrites rationalize their wishful thinking or their urge to dominate their fellows, and is a expression of the lengths people will go to in order to avoid taking any responsibility for their lives. Such “faith” makes you a menace to us all. Modes people have used more frequently in the last hundred years to rationalize a menacing domination of their fellows: national identity; ‘scientifically proven’ racial superiority; progress/civilization; spreading democracy; spreading communism; or (in both instances) spreading freedom. I suggest we get rid of: nations, science, progress, democracy, identity, civilization, communism and freedom–starting with the Olympics.
  • Gods don’t kill People, People with Gods kill People. First off, this needs a semi-colon. Second, it should be followed by: wahwahwaaaah! Finally, this is presumably why the most secular century on record was also the bloodiest, and its battles were fought over secular ideologies?

Whenever the New York Times publishes a piece on Christian religion or spirituality, I find myself rubber necking at the comments section—it’s sort of like a passenger train colliding with a silo full of bile, and then spilling out a bunch of people who are more deluded about modern history than the Christians they vilify might be concerning the nature of God.

Christians, all three billion of them, are reduced to “stupid idiots.” Their spiritualities are a side effect of willful delusion, a murderous desire for domination, or, at best, a mental illness. Christians are hopelessly fatalistic and irresponsible with their behavior. I could go on with the various costumes that adorn this contemporary witch hunt, but it is this last concept which I have always found fascinating—mostly out of surprise that people familiar with the term ‘fatalism’ could have such a bizarre interpretation of its effects.

The question, then, I submit in this post: Does belief in an interventionist God/fatalism in theory = irresponsibility and indifference in practice?

As with so many questions of faith and dogma, the topic of fatalism first came to my attention as an issue in Islamic history. Specifically, I found it funny that the Shi’a sect of Islam was at once singled out as helplessly fatalistic–lying prone in the face of its collective fate—while being responsible for various revolutions, near revolutions, and modern “strategery” from its holy homebase in Iran. Surely, few would argue that Iranians in the last years have exhibited indifference to their circumstances or a lack of responsibility toward changing them. In fact, for a people who believe their fate is not in their hands, they appear to have a greater collective will to alter their fate than their Sunni brothers and sisters in places like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, much less their irreligious counterparts in fellow ‘axis-of-evil’ member North Korea.

Furthermore, these days the best organized and most formidable military (or terrorist, depending on from which side of the tea cup you sip) opposition to Israel is spawned not from the secular-left loins of its neighboring governments, but instead by those predestinarians in the south of Lebanon: the impoverished Shi’a who took a break from their indifference to this earthly realm to put together a little political and military organization called Hezb’Allah–the party of God.

You might be thinking: “Fine, then, fatalistic indifference to the problems of this world is a deleted gene when housed in guerilla/terrorist/freedom fighters…and Iranians… I just meant those ole Christians in America anyway…”

Of course you did.  However, and by no means intending an ideological comparison with Hezb’Allah, perhaps the friendliest example of revolutionary fatalism can be found on Yankee shores:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

The “mentally ill” “idiot” of a Christian putting all his faith in the Lord and not fearing the future in this case? Why Martin Luther King Jr. I would like to know from what, pray tell, did his belief in an omnipotent God hold him back?

“Ok, fine, so fatalism doesn’t encourage inaction or irresponsibility in the public sphere. Surely, these crazy Christians must be slacking in their personal lives while they wait for God to save them?”

The evidence, again, points squarely to “no.” Research, in fact, indicates that church attending men are more responsible in marriage and fatherhood:

And studies show that the majority of volunteering in America and Canada takes place through religious organizations:…-a030445424

Suffice it to say, whatever the hand of God is doing in people’s lives, it is not keeping them from: starting revolutions; fighting enemy states; seeking social justice; actively parenting, or doing volunteer work. Churches are even and increasingly getting in on the environmental crusade. Frankly, I am not sure to what these predestinarians might be said to be indifferent—other than defending themselves on the New York Times comment section.

But there was one more sentimental thread in these comments which made me think that, in spite of all the good work Woody Allen has done towards making people more self-conscious, few of these writers have taken a moment to look in the metaphorical mirror:

  • Whatever helps, but please spare the rest of us!
  • I think I am almost always responsible for what happens to me. The notion of some divine puppeteer being in charge of my life makes no sense to me at all. All I ask of the believers is that they not attempt to inflict their superstition on me.

I thought about this notion of ‘infliction’ while sitting on a bus, on the receiving end of a lusty stare from a half-starved teenager in her panties. She was on a billboard the height of a building. Her crotch firmly inflicted on me.  Having disembarked, I passed a newsstand. A woman with breasts of an unnatural size and position thrust herself into my line of vision from the cover of a magazine. I met with a friend of mine. We went for ice cream where she launched into a rather joyful dissertation on her sex life. Some hipsters passed by on one side, dropping the eff bomb at regular intervals, some small children ran screaming by on the other.

This is my everyday life. While I don’t personally find its content overly disturbing, much of the imagery, when I reflect on it, is potentially offensive, and little of it is solicited. If I were religiously conservative, it would be nightmarish. Setting religion aside, as a parent, that my daughter or son was inundated with graphic sexual images, profanity, violence–all of it very public and beyond my control–would be grounds for a rational objection.

The question then becomes, why do the above writers feel they have a special need to be spared? Which one of us is ‘spared’ points of view or values that conflict with our own? Does not the right to free speech and expression ensure that none of us have any right to be spared? And so, on what grounds should people with religious views be banned while pornographers, promoters of the female body industry, and the irreverent, profane and often pointless ranters be rewarded? I don’t know about these probable New Yorkers, but coming from one of the more conservative states in the US, I’ve been witnessed to a grand total of four times, in three-plus decades of living. I think I am confronted with unsolicited porn about that many times a day.

The only thing one is able to conclude about these authors is that they believe everyone is free to be who they are and say what they like to and about one another, provided this fits within a liberal “progressive” framework? Tolerance, when extended to the like-minded and denied to those who believe differently, earns the short but revolutionary prefix “in.” And, to invoke the thinking of Descartes, this is almost all ultimately a matter of speculation, unfixed, and unknowable.

In conclusion, I still await scientific or even social scientific evidence that the three billion Christians wandering the planet are collectively stupid, idiots, indifferent to their behavior (more than anyone else, at least) or even that they go around harassing readers of the New York Times. For now, all I have is evidence that the readership of the New York Times is prone to hysterical generalizations, false analogies, and poorly reasoned conjecture when it comes to their believing counterparts.

Condemning Christianity, Canonizing Pedophiles

March 9, 2010

From Wikipedia:

While the prosperity gospel movement is often perceived as part of the broad spectrum of North American evangelical Christianity, most prominent evangelicals reject the teaching as non-evangelical. Until March 2009, when Joyce Meyer‘s ministry was accepted into the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), none of the major prosperity gospel proponents belonged to well-established evangelical organizations such as the ECFA or the National Association of Evangelicals.[9][10][11][12]

“Did Christianity Cause The Crash?” The Atlantic Monthly online posed this question late last year in an article re-featured last week on their ‘You Might Have Missed’ list. Now, because I kind of love The Atlantic, I will refrain from singling out the magazine for generating headlines in search of a story. Furthermore, I will happily acknowledge that they did include contextual snippets, within this proof-by-example fallacy. (Prosperity gospel is Christian, some of its followers took bad mortgages, therefore Christianity caused the crash.) They did note that American wealth-obsession preceded (and likely created) this low-rent theological trend. They mentioned in passing that there have been quite outspoken critics of this type of theology within the religious community. AND they even acknowledged that many of the people involved in and affected by the crisis were not members of this new sect/ trend. Fine, it was an interesting thesis, if poorly worded and about as structurally sound as any house of cards.

However, what I cannot abide without at least a little smirk is the fact of an op-ed entreaty, published on the same front webpage, urging readers to have a heart when it comes to the personal suffering of and sacrifices made by… pedophiles.

Wait–so what you’re saying, Atlantic Monthly, is that we should consider blaming “Christianity” (Which Christianity? Oh, you mean a small sect? Sorry, that was utterly unclear) for our debt crisis, but cut people who wish to rape children a little more slack? This editorial coincidence is like something risen howling from Glenn Beck’s paranoid rantings.  Or perhaps some bizarre test to see if we liberal-minded people really will march along with anything that disdains religion and pushes for ‘tolerance.’ When Fox pundits claim that the values of ‘liberal media’ are not consistent with mainstream values, they now have two more missiles in their arsenal, because, frankly, if being a liberal means I have to blame some weird, chimerical monolith named ‘Christianity’ for enormous and complex phenomena, while patting pedophiles on the back for the great accomplishment of not raping children, then I’m feeling some mainstream values coming on.

SO, getting back to the pedophile article. The author trotted out in evidence a super nice pedophile whom she knew growing up. He was friendly and never molested her. She even babysat his kids, for crying out loud! And his life was “RUINED” (her word, my emphasis) when the police found child pornography on his computer.

Indeed. His life was ruined. Unlike the children whose rape films he underwrote in pursuit of his orgasm.

The author goes on to argue that on-the-wagon child molesters deserve our respect and sympathy for a lifetime of suppressing the urge to violently assault children. She then describes this suppression as “saintly.” Forget the logistical problems with setting up a system which rewards people not for merit, but for lack of criminal behavior. The saint comparison is truly beyond the pale. Saints, generally, are known for having given up all of life’s material amenities, including but not limited to sex, in order to devote their lives fully to service of others and to their faith. If that is commiserate with refraining from rape or other violent impulses, then I deserve to be canonized every day for not punching slow walkers in the back of the head. And yet, were I to tell most people that I felt like punching them for not conforming to the world as I desire it, but that I had refrained, I somehow doubt they would rush to call up the Nobel committee.

Furthermore, she titles her article “The Desire that Dare Not Speak Its Name”—a euphemism formerly employed to describe homosexuality. How offensive is it, not only to our gay friends and neighbors, but to any modicum of reason, to equate consensual relationships between adults to the rape of a child?

Now, I am not saying we should hate or punish people for their criminal impulses, hardly. But can this woman conversely claim that if an acquaintance told her he desperately wanted to rape her, but was working hard to not do so, she would respond with a hug, offer him a cup of tea, and let him walk her to her car…in an empty parking lot?

As a good friend of mine points out, why, as a society, have we become so eager to coddle and reward people simply for not failing at basic decency? What sort of bar does that set? Is it worth asking whether, in some way, that attitude ‘normalizes’ the carrying out of crimes? In other words, if we say not giving into our darker impulses is an achievement, then aren’t we also saying that doing so is the more mundane, predictable outcome?

“But the social revulsion makes him feel stressed out and alienated” is her argument. Frankly, those are precisely the things I want child molesters to feel when they think about attacking my child. We’re nearing a point in our society where judging ourselves and our desires harshly, no matter what they are, is considered a negative act. The comparison with saintliness is ironic where much of Christian teaching looks sympathetically not on the pride one takes in self-denial, but rather on the act of honest self-evaluation, restraint from harming others, and yes, even feeling guilt for and alienated by the wrongs we commit. These are not saintly behaviors to be rewarded, they are the basic stuff of striving to be better.

The author seems to think those sorts of ‘negative’ feelings will make him (and statistically, it’s almost always a him) more likely to rape. I am not sure in what way she would like us to make people feel good about themselves for not doing horrible things, or why pedophiles should be singled out. Speaking personally, I have found restraint from wrong not a saintly act, but rather requisite to my feelings of self-respect and to my very humanity. I do not hope for a society so far fallen that one deserves a pat on the back for just being decent. Even so, one could just as easily take the Pavlovian stance and suppose that fear of society-wide revulsion stands between the rapist and his behavior, if anything does. Perhaps not, but we don’t know. Ultimately, as with the first story on the dastardly Christians who took down our economy, there is no evidence that sympathy will either mitigate the rape drive or keep it at bay. Just another sexy editorial choice on a topic with scant evidence to support the position taken. I suppose the Atlantic would have us take these things on faith.

David Foster Wallace on Worship

March 9, 2010

Via my friend Nora. Taken from a commencement speech delivered by the writer, David Foster Wallace (RIP). It is tragic that our generation lost such an measured thinker…

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”

“This is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.”

Christopher Hitchens Claims Catholicism Causes AIDs, Fails to Mention It Leads to Clubbing of Baby Seals, Torture of Kittens, and Halitosis

March 2, 2010

The Claim: Opposition to birth control by the Catholic Church is responsible for AIDs deaths in Africa.
This argument was made by Christopher Hitchens and intended to persuade the audience of the show “Intelligence Squared” that the Catholic Church is not a force for good in the world. The assertion was directed at a Nigerian bishop, when Hitchens’ accused him of bearing personal responsibility for the spread of HIV/AIDs in Nigeria.
I don’t know if Hitchens is deliberately dishonest, or just does zero research before vomiting positions, but the reasons this claim is utterly irrational and illogical are legion. Let me begin, though, with my personal speculation as to how Hitchens’ might have arrived at his conclusion:

Brrring Brrring…Hello, Pat Robertson speaking.
CH: Hello Pat, it’s Christopher Hitchens calling…
PR: Hey Hitchy, great to hear from you! I loved your smear job on Mother Theresa. What can I do for you?
CH: And I as well, much admired your claim that gay pride parades cause crop failure. Listen, I’ve got this debate tomorrow with a Nigerian Catholic bishop. I’m supposed to prove Catholicism is bad. He seems like a pretty nice fellow, and I’ve already beaten the Mother Theresa horse into the ground. You got anything for me?
PR: Hmm, well, people think Africa, they think AIDs…at least our people. Why don’t you say his Papist worshiping of the Pope causes the AIDs? That oughtta do it.
CH: I like the way you think; however, maybe I should rein it in a little. I don’t have my own television channel after all…. And these people want something “intelligent.” I’ve got it! I’ll say his Catholic birth control policy caused AIDs in Nigeria.
PR: Wait, isn’t Nigeria usually run by Muhammadans? Are there even any Catlickers there?
CH: Oh yes, Muslims galore! Half the population, Pat. In reality, Catholics represent only about thirteen percent of Nigerians. What’s ever better is that the Catholic Church was barely operational in Nigeria from the 1970s until 1999… Islamic military government and all. In reality, they missed the onset of the AIDs crisis altogether!
PR: Now that’s rich!
CH: Plus, Nigeria isn’t even one of the worst-afflicted countries. Their AIDs rate is 5%. Their neighbors to the south are looking at 20-40%. But Pat, we both know no one is going to know that. I mean, it’s Nigeria for God’s sake. My people want to believe the Pope is evil. I tell them he causes AIDs. No one’s going to risk their faith in that by fact checking.
PR: I know what you mean. My people are the same. Except, well…except with regard to your people.
(Both laughing.)
So, Hitchens claim falls short with respect to Nigeria. But could the Catholic Church be responsible for HIV/AIDs elsewhere?
The answer, in short, is no. Let’s look at some of the reasons this is the conclusion which reason would generate:

1. Basic logic: If we suppose that the teachings of the Church play a persuasive role in determining people’s sexual choices, then it stands to reason that its profound opposition to pre-marital sex and adultery, both believed to be far greater sins, would impact sexual behavior as much or more than the choice to wear a condom or not. In other words, we are being asked to imagine that a man is thinking about the what the Church wants when he decides not to put on a rubber, but not when he’s committing ‘fornication’ or ‘adultery.’ It’s illogical. If church teachings were such a persuasive agent, we’d see an effect in more than one, relatively secondary, part of behavior.

2. If Catholic teachings contribute to the AIDs crisis in Africa, it stands to reason that there would be many Catholics in the worst-afflicted country, no?
That, my friends, would be Botswana. What’s the Catholic population of Botswana? 5%. What’s even better? Four times as many of its citizens, like Hitchens himself, espouse no religion.

3. What about majority Catholic countries then? According to Hitchens’ logic, if Catholic birth control teachings contribute to HIV/AIDs (and unprotected sex in general), then countries with a whole bunch of Catholics and Church influence must have serious HIV problems, or at least a lot of babies.
Let’s think–What’s a country with a lot of Catholics? Why, Italy! The Vatican is there, for heaven’s sake. Plus 87% of its population, or approximately 52 million people, self-identify as Catholic. I wonder what their HIV/AIDs rate is like? Let’s see…why, it’s .4% of the population. The same as France (20% atheist), and less than Switzerland (.6%), where fully half the population is made up of people who self identify as atheist, agnostic, or ‘spiritual but not religious.’ But wait, it gets better, guess where the lowest national birth rate in the world is? Hitchens would never guess: Once again, it’s big, old Catholic Italy. And if you think that this is because Italians don’t have sex, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you. According to one international poll, Italians are considered the sexiest people in the world. Conversely, where would one imagine, according to Hitchensian speculation, that the highest teen pregnancy rates occur. Surely somewhere full of birth control-reviling Catholics! Wrong again, it’s the UK, a measly 9% Catholic. (I can’t speak to their sexiness ranking.)

4. OK, fine, Italy is full of Catholics AND the Pope, but the people clearly use (arguably too much) birth control, but it’s a developed country. So maybe the official stance only affects poorer Catholics?
Good point, me, what about HIV/AIDs in less developed, Catholic countries? Let’s start with Mexico: 89% Catholic, .3% infection rate (half of Switzerland); Argentina: 80% Catholic, .5% infection rate; Philippines: 80% Catholic, less than .1% infection rate. Do I need to continue here? Basically, if Catholic birth control opposition is causing HIV/AIDs, it is not doing so in Catholic countries.

5. Well, surely Hitchens wouldn’t just make this up. Development experts must think this is an important variable? Again, the answer is no to the latter (and apparently ‘yes’ to the former.) Important variables in the HIV/AIDs crisis, according to experts, both indigenous observers and those working with NGOs and international development agencies, include, in no particular order: poverty; lack of education; prevalence of rape and prostitution (the ‘virgin rape’ myth most famously); patriarchy/lack of female education and empowerment; political instability and violence…even the impact of European colonialism is brought to bear. You’d hit closer to the mark blaming Britain than Catholicism, apparently.

Incidentally, care to wager a guess as to what the greatest factor is in predicting a drop in birth rate in developing nations? No, it’s not access to condoms or even abortions. It’s female education. (Check the UN, Arab Human Development Report’s findings on Iran, for an amazing example.) Now, guess what Catholic Relief Services claims as one of its main goals in Africa…That’s right, the education of girls. So not only is Catholic birth control policy demonstrably irrelevant to the crisis, the work done by Catholic organizations helps with the aspect considered most relevant to solving it. And Catholics teach evolution. So, don’t even start with that.
What’s truly shameful about this ridiculous claim is that it has apparently wound its way into the popular imagination. It was invoked just a few days ago by the New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, not known for his extremism. Kristof, apparently, is not afraid to engage in unwarranted Catholic bashing. I feel obliged to ask: Would we feel as comfortable blaming other religions or ideologies for tragic death and destruction with not a lick of proof (and an abundance of proof to the contrary)? Could there be any more plain a case of hostility and blind prejudice?
Just for fun, and in conclusion, I would like to point out that Islam does not forbid birth control, and yet Saudi Arabia, the Muslim-est of all countries, has among the highest birth rates in the world. I’d also like to wonder aloud if Hitchens has ever met a man who, not otherwise compelled, was eager to put on a condom. Perhaps next time he should argue that men are a force for evil in the world. Or would that make him some sort of fanatic?

May 29, 1453

February 28, 2010

The fall of Constantinople in 1453. I’ve been thinking about the role of legends in our collective grasp of history. How like love notes, sometimes, proffering a vivid snapshot of sentiment, while, at other times, they lay bare entire Weltanshauungen. Listening to this fascinating podcast concerning the history of Catholic beliefs regarding the “End Times,” I learned the following: According to Catholic legend, the priests of the Hagia Sofia vanished into the walls of the church as the city fell to the Janissaries. The last emperor, Constantine XI, rode out into a hopeless battle and is said to have been turned to marble and entombed in the earth by an angel. The notion there: that the past stirs in the walls and slumbers in the earth, even after its human demise… I left the metro with images of these petrified souls abandoned and awaiting some elusive end to a history turned rapidly unfriendly…Sometimes legends leave even us non-poets with a little bit of pretty:

Constantine the last
Dropped into the fickle soil:
Carrara charnel
In Hagia Sofia
Priests blown into particles
Stir in the bellywalls

Atheism Is The New Fundamentalism- Professor AC Grayling Makes A Telling Claim

February 23, 2010

The claim: By growing up in and around religious culture, atheists have a better understanding of Christianity than do Christians of atheism.
What do we make of this assertion by British philosophy professor and ardent atheist, AC Grayling? Let us begin by setting aside Graylings’ and Dawkins’ later argument that atheism is not fundamentalist due to lack of holy books, dogmas, and precepts set in stone—all of which would indicate that there’s not much of substance for Christians to understand—and look instead at the other facts which undermine this fantasy:
1. In the secular countries from which our atheist attack dogs hail, religions and religious histories are not required subjects at the pre-Kindergarten, elementary, junior high, high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels of public and most private school. Ergo, religion/Christianity is neither being taught nor “understood” in any formal setting. Even in Catholic school, religion classes are limited to Catholic theology and doctrine, a point to which I’ll return.
2. In order to bolster the claimant, let us take America as our case study for the supposition that people come to understand religion from “society.” We’ll do so where the US is one of the last, Western, secular societies with a populace that undertakes to practice religion on any regular basis in anything approaching significant percentages(though still less than 50%). Now, let us assume that Grayling is not suggesting that secular society teaches religion through a nebulous super-brain which beams religious information down via osmosis. The question then becomes: who is teaching all of these atheists their deep understanding of Christianity? He claims they’ve learned it from religious practice in their families, ie, they must have learned it in church. There are three problems with this:

• First,  as has been demonstrated, the majority of people, even in America, do not attend church on a regular basis. Moreover, even if they did, church attendance, in most cases, involves approximately one hour of worship a week. Thus, most young people are about thirty times more expert on television and seven times more expert on mathematics than they are on Christianity. It’s a wonder that the networks and NASA aren’t snatching them from their beds. In reality, neither objective study nor understanding, of Christianity is the likely outcome of even weekly church attendance. One might as well argue that because he or she has hair, and grooms it ritually, he or she ‘understands’ why it grows, of what it is composed, what purpose it serves, how it has been styled, and worn symbolically throughout history…
To the contrary, this individual experience, without a broader context in which to place it, probably results in more prejudice surrounding hair–or religion–than “understanding” of it.
• Second, for the minority who do attend church regularly, there remains the problem that worship, specifically, is not aimed at teaching people an understanding of Christianity–not structurally, nor historically, nor sociologically, nor theologically, nor at all past interpretation of the text. Rather, worship is aimed at…errm…well, worshiping mostly. At best this means teaching a very contextually variable interpretation of texts. So the supposition that you “learn” about “Christianity” writ large, can only be true if, by ‘Christianity,’ you mean the details of a specific sect’s worship ceremony. If only that were all there were to it…
• Lastly, and hearkening back to the last point, which Christianity does he suppose one learns so deeply about by occasional church attendance in childhood? After all, Catholic churches do not endeavor to teach their followers about Lutheranism (perhaps to prevent defection); Mennonites don’t know much about mega-churches; one won’t catch conservative southern Baptists shivering on the South Mall in DC, protesting the war alongside progressive-minded Unitarians and Quakers; and, among Lutherans, the ELCA says it’s ok to be gay and a bishop, for which the Missouri Synod has left them at the altar.
Point being, there is not a monolithic Christianity to be taught or “understood.” Grayling’s claim, thus, sheds light neither on ‘the truth’ nor even on some objective ‘reality,’ but only on the (likely willful) limits of his understanding of the subject of religion.

If Grayling’s atheists are in a good position to critique and dismiss Christianity based on the understanding derived from their personal, childhood encounters with a sect, then I am in a good position to do the same for anything I’ve encountered regularly and disliked. We all necessarily boast a host of mini-expertises, by this logic. Someone call the universities and tell them to shut it down! Everything we need to know, we learned in Sunday school, apparently.
Unfortunately, the shortcomings of a Sunday school education became apparent when the atheist team cynically dismissed as useless the teachings of Christianity because, they claimed, these originated with a ‘desert nomad.’ I will put aside the degree to which this smacks of old school British Orientalism and say first that I’m glad to know that they can recognize the relevance of history and context when it suits them to do so; however, historically and geographically, of course, this description faulty.Bethlehem and Galilee are not in the desert. They were and are towns located somewhat near a desert, sure, but modern Israelis, particularly those in the tourist industry, will be happy to back me up on the fact that they were and are green spaces with arable land. Similarly, Jesus Christ and his family were not “nomads.” Only a profound illiteracy vis a vis Biblical history could produce such an inaccurate characterization, especially given that the transition between nomadic and settled living in human history is considered, well, kind of a big deal. Perhaps not to a philosopher or a biologist.
For the sake of disclosure, I should admit that I bring a personal perspective to this particular discussion, as I fall somewhat into the category of people upon whom the claim is based. I was raised more religiously than most. I went to Catholic school and Catholic Church throughout my youth. I was processed through all the requisite rituals: baptism, confession, communion and confirmation. I attended mass twice a week, belonged to Catholic youth groups, did volunteer work, went on missionary trips. For heaven’s sake, I was an altar server! Then, at the age of sixteen, when I could no longer be compelled to do any of this, I quit, became profoundly agnostic and finally got to enjoy the delicacy of Sunday mornings slept in.
By my mid-twenties, what I could meaningfully recall about the history, the structure, and the teachings of the Church was far less voluminous than what I could tell you about punk music or the life and times of HP Lovecraft. Had I been called upon to critique religion, most of what I could have come up with were objections to sexual mores incompatible with the libertine values of my age. I was culturally Catholic, but certainly no expert on Catholic history or the niceties of theology . Going further afield, what I knew about non-Catholic sects and religions was literally nothing beyond the exotic sounding titles they were given. The point again being, to suggest that having experienced a certain culture or tradition in childhood marks one as an expert in adulthood is unfounded. Would we so lightly claim that all African Americans are of one experience, mind and expertise on African American history and culure? Ask yourself: Where else would we be so arrogant as to assume that some hours spent in grade school equaled general expertise or even understanding?
And I think here we get to what bothers me the most: Trained as a social scientist, it is apparent to me that religions are one of the key historical phenomena in the development of human civilizations. For both better and worse, they have acted (alternately) as primordial civil society and impetus and organizing principle or legitimizer for governing structures; as the underpinnings for political philosophies and legal codes, both ancient and advanced, and as rallying points for the opposition to what these institutions wrought. Their adherents have fought and died to break down ancient, hierarchical organizing principles; to aid the disenfranchised; to spread access to education (founding many of the greatest universities on the planet, alongside schools for the rural poor), and yes, also to generate some of the more draconian moral codes and their concomitant persecutions. In short, whether or not an actual God lives a divine relationship with humanity through religion, the relationship between our monotheistic conceptions of God and our behavior remains very real…and no less complicated, or fascinating.
Thus it is that, listening to Grayling and Dawkins suggest that all of this is naught more than belief in fairies—or else an outmoded and reactionary ‘delusion’ holding back humanity–gives me rather the same feeling that I had when George W Bush and his Neocon cabal (including, oddly enough, Christopher Hitchens) suggested that ‘Iraqis’ (again, no differentiation) would greet the American invasion with candy and flowers and race to embrace democracy, rather than chaos. Because, presumably, democracy is self-evidently and always good and authoritarianism is clearly and always bad. (Where echoed the lessons of Huntington, one wonders.) I cannot live in that world of chimerical absolutes. In the world I know, the vast majority of humans are impoverished and illiterate. In this same world, three out of four charity dollars and a lot of peace of mind and positive motivation are religiously inspired. It has been said that if God did not exist, we would have invented Him, perhaps because we should have.
In conclusion, it is not religion which I find deluded and naïve; it is the utopist vision of a world full of happy humans sans organizing principles and unifying structures and narratives. It is the reductionist fantasy of religion as nothing more than a few old men telling us not to screw around because there is a scary man in the sky, rather than the recognition of it as a historically dynamic, demonstrably evolving and diverse social ecosystem—one which we seek to destroy at the same risk and peril as when we take torches to the rainforests. This is the religion, the meaning of God, of Christianity which I fear Grayling and Dawkins, in spite of perhaps having once gone into a church, fail to ‘understand.’

“Between God and a Hard Place”

January 24, 2010

In the early 21st century, the anti-religion genre is good business. A few middle-aged, male, mostly British biologists and philosophers have demonstrated, to their satisfaction, that evolution disproves the existence of God. This, in spite of the fact that the majority of Christians themselves believe in evolution (Catholics teach it.) And also in spite of the fact that Darwin, while himself profoundly agnostic, according to his descendent/biographer, strongly disapproved of his theory being used to champion atheism.

A few literary critics, similarly, have appeared on the dialectical scene to inform us that religious institutions, and belief in God generally, have been hostile to our individual freedom and collective, intellectual development. They forget, perhaps, through whose efforts many of the greatest universities of the world came to be,  as well as what social science has to say about the crucial role of social cohesion in the spread of knowledge and the crucial role of religion, historically, in that cohesion. One might even consider that, where self-discipline has been strongly correlated with a lifetime of academic and professional success, sitting through the Stations of the Cross does more for one’s intellectual capacities than the individual freedom to drop acid and dance naked in the mud at Burning Man.

But let us set these problems aside, for now.

In this most recent contribution from the literary critic James Wood, the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti is seized upon as an opportunity to write a sexy article about how opportunistically some preachers pontificate when treating tragedy. Who are his primary examples of this? Highly ranked religious officials…of the mid-18th century; Pat Robertson; a couple of Haitian passers-by, along with one Haitian bishop, and half of a line from a speech by Barack Obama.

What do all of these people have in common, according to our author? They are all participants in an “appalling discourse” involving varying degrees of “repellent cruelty.” What, then, could these people possibly be calling for? The extermination of kittens? The firing of missiles at Rainbows? Another Law and Order spin-off?

Nope. They are all participants in theodicy.

What is that, Professor Wood? You may find yourself asking. I would advise against that, because here is what Prof. Wood tells you Theodicy is: “the justification of God’s good government of the world in the face of evil and pain.” Well, if you want to be simplistic, I suppose that is true. History, and the online Catholic encyclopedia, on the other hand, tell us that: “Theodicy, therefore, may be defined as the science which treats the question of God through the exercise of reason alone.”

Now, I am all for calling out Pat Robertson when he tips over and spills his usual crazy to the benefit of no one, but to imply that he is somehow representative of the modern discourse of some fantastical Christian monolith is just a case of inaccurate coming to fisticuffs with crazy. And neither of these characters is going to help bring this ship to harbor.

So how about we inject a little reality into this critique.

The fact is that most people are not participating in the modern discourse surrounding theodicy, primarily because they don’t know what it is and have rather more important lawns to mow. And included among “most people,” if for different reasons, are all of the people hung out to dry by Wood. Here’s why:

1. Mid-18th century religious leaders, for several reasons: First, because they are dead. Second, because nine and a half out of ten people will not have heard of any of them before Wood dredged up their quotes to fit neatly into his reductionist position. It is hard to participate in an imaginary discourse when no one has heard of you. And third, because they lived in a period when medical doctors still tried to cure your gangrenous limb by bleeding you, meaning, much of what educated men had to say about a lot of things, and how they responded to devastation, was influenced by the limits of the era and so didn’t survive into modern discourse. Kant or Rousseau would have been fairer examples, though not nearly as handy as straw men.

2.The POTUS is not participating because it was probably his speechwriter who put that ‘there but for the grace of God…’ line in. Besides, in modern contexts, isn’t that often taken to mean: we sure are lucky, moreso than some deep theological inference? I don’t think every time an American utters “Oh, God” they are actually calling on God or participating in a discourse about God’s supremacy, or even believe in God.  OH, also because, in spite of his purportedly fatalistic deference to the will of God (or perhaps because of it), the POTUS appears to be super busy organizing a response to the crisis in Haiti, along with about a gazillion other crises. The military, a famously conservative and religiously-dominated secular institution supplied some of the first, fatalistic boots on the ground. According to Wood’s supposition, they should just have left that labor to God. Odd that.

3. Haitian man on the street. Mostly he is probably not participating in the modern discourse on theodicy because, statistically, there is a greater-than 70% chance that he is illiterate. The author seems to suggest that one of the biggest favors we could do for this guy would be to get those silly notions of there being any comfort to be derived by using a religious mythos to understand his grief and suffering. Because that, apparently, makes all of his relatives who did not survive feel bad about themselves.

Ironically, where 90% of schools in Haiti are private, mostly Catholic, he would probably have to turn to the church to get an education sufficient to read Woods’ article at all. It’s good though, that our critic is coming up with solutions.